When it comes to local government, trust is key. But for the governing body of Incline Village/Crystal Bay, transparency hasn’t always been a clear path forward.
A self-described “quasi-public” special district, Incline Village General Improvement District formed in 1961 initially as a waste treatment entity and slowly took on more tasks that Washoe County was struggling to provide to a growing Incline Village/Crystal Bay population. Today, IVGID owns and operates about 1,500 acres and manages the town’s public utilities along with for-profit enterprises like golf courses and Diamond Peak ski resort. That’s the IVGID’s history in a nutshell, but as they say, the devil is in the details.
This expanding role has made financial accountability and transparency a complicated task for the elected members of the board of directors over the years, and in 2016 there was a historic change in the type of account (from enterprise to governmental) IVGID uses. That, along with questions about misuse of earmarked funds and one incumbent not running for reelection, have ramped up conversations about improving IVGID’s financial transparency and efficiency and driven a fresh wave of candidates running in November.
(See Complications in IVGID’s Quasi-Public Finances, published in 2018, for more about the move to a governmental account.)
“I see a lack of trust between the board, the community, as well as IVGID staff, regarding budgets and financial statements,” wrote Michaela Tonking, challenging IVGID board candidate, in an email to Moonshine Ink. “IVGID already provides a resource for financial transparency with opengov.com. I propose the creation of quarterly infographics and short webinars for the community to have easy, straightforward information to understand where money is being spent and investments IVGID is making.”
The election’s momentum on financial transparency comes on the heels of a shift in recent months to focus on financial oversight spearheaded by current treasurer Sara Schmitz, who is vying for reelection along with fellow incumbent Matthew Dent, who originally won his seat by appointment.
“I think we are in the process of making some real changes, and changes happen slowly and they need to happen a bit methodically,” Schmitz told Moonshine. She has been working with the board and new director of finance Paul Navazio and general manager Indra Winquest on deepening the role of IVGID’s financial committee and establishing an independent, external audit of the former board’s move to switch account types and provide financial oversight. While the former committee comprised of three trustees would meet “for 15 minutes” once a year, Schmitz said, to approve a Comprehensive Annual Financial Report, the new committee meets more regularly and in-depth, with attendees including two trustees and three at-large appointed community members.
Schmitz sees the energy around financial transparency and accountability as an opportunity for IVGID to make progress on public priorities that haven’t been addressed for years. “If you can get a handle on the finances and the internal controls,” she said, “all of the other things just become that much easier.”
All told, IVGID’s contested election will determine three empty seats: Schmitz’s and Dent’s terms are both up along with the empty seat of departing trustee Peter Morris. Alongside the two incumbents, the challenging candidates are Yolanda Knaack, Frank Wright, Michaela Tonking, and Blane Johnson.
Knaack is all on board with the audit and greater push for financial transparency — she would in fact potentially want to be a part of the financial committee if elected — but she doesn’t see that as a necessary precursor to other projects and proposals. Rather, she is running to advocate that IVGID immediately tackle long-standing environmental issues first and foremost.
“My whole platform is that we need to fix the long-term problems instead of looking at all the [other] wonderful things we can do,” she said, citing the Beach House concession stand at Incline Beach and other infrastructure improvement projects as ones that should be put on the backburner. “There’s a lot of things we can do but first we’ve got to take care of the environment.”
As a trustee, Knaack would consider those project proposals only after addressing the long-standing issues of chlorine-treated water leaking from the Burnt Cedar pool and the need to replace an effluent pipeline that has been known to be leaking for almost two decades. Schmitz, Wright, and Tonking also discussed those environmental priorities, which have been on IVGID dockets for years, as key platform items.
In fact, issues of financial transparency and the effluent pipeline leak are connected: Both Knaack and Wright described an incident with IVGID that eroded public trust involving a pond liner that was never purchased.
“We have a bunch of money that was spent to build a pond liner to catch the effluent waste and I looked and they already spent the money but there’s no pond liner,” Wright explained. “So where did the money go? Well, [the IVGID board at the time] gave me a bunch of Costco receipts and then they tried to cover it up, but I don’t know where the money went. Nobody does.”
Wright is a supporter of both Schmitz’s and Dent’s reelection bid and the financial audit, and says he hopes to fill the third spot as someone who is “in the loop” with the transparency issues and need to focus on the independent audit and reform.
Schmitz wants the public to reelect her, along with Dent, to one of the available seats so they can finish what they started. “If you get to the point of consistency, you can achieve things,” she said. “If there’s just constant changing and constant turmoil, it can be redirecting the boat one way and then another way and then another way as opposed to just keeping it aiming on the future, full speed ahead with a vision of where are we going.”
Exiting trustee Morris chose not to run again in part because he didn’t see movement on the priorities he ran on such as opening Diamond Peak for the summer season and improving facilities like the Beach House.
“It gets harder and harder to push the water uphill, to quote an overused expression,” Morris said. When the new guard comes in January 2021, Morris is advocated for new, younger voices on the board and is particularly supportive of Tonking’s run as a younger candidate who grew up in Incline.